7 Days in The Arts
A.M.E., Rhythm and Jews
It's Friday night, and as I wander toward the entrance of Temple Emanuel, a Reform synagogue in Beverly Hills, an usher approaches and asks brightly, “Are you with the choir?”
I'm African American, but I'm not with the choir, at least not with the choir of Temple Bryant A.M.E. Church, which is visiting the synagogue tonight. I smile through a twinge of annoyance.
Later, as I search for a seat in the cavernous but crowded temple, another helpful-looking usher with a pile of programs catches sight of me: “You must be with the choir!”
To be sure, some of those A.M.E. folks, some of whom are splendidly dressed in West African kente cloth, are looking like they need a little bit of direction. But the first lesson of multiculturalism may be that not all black people are churchgoers and/or singers. I could have been Jewish, for all anybody knew. As it happens, I'm not Jewish, my husband is and my married name, Kaplan, tends to throw people of all colors and religious beliefs when I show up in person. So I've learned to carry a certain sympathy for cultural and ethnic misconceptions.
Then I remind myself that I like the reason why I'm here on this Friday in February: This concert marks an early step by Temple Emanuel and Bryant A.M.E., from Leimert Park in the Crenshaw District, to develop relationships between their respective flocks. Not political, agenda-driven, public relations-conscious relationships, but ties forged the old-fashioned way — through individual conversations and personal connections over time. The bridge-building is part of a larger effort by the community organizing outfit, One L.A. (the latest iteration of the Industrial Areas Foundation), to unite Los Angeles' disparate populations around conversations on a whole host of common, quality-of-life issues.
The Rev. Dr. Clyde Oden Jr. of Bryant and Rabbi Laura Geller of Emanuel are putting their own stamp on this, starting with names: Oden calls the project “Shalom in the City,” Geller has dubbed it “Hineni, Here I Am.” Both admit they are on a long journey that has no real road map and that may take years to accomplish, if it is accomplished at all. Yet both are encouraged so far. Geller has taught the Torah at Oden's church, and he brought some congregants to temple last Friday; the two groups have already planned a joint seder and picked an L.A.-resonant theme for it: “Coming out of a narrow place.”
Oden says it's all in the spirit of creating a new model of activism, one rooted not in the leaders or agendas of yore, but in friendships.
“These won't be drive-by relationships,” says Oden, who proposed the crosstown outreach. “Our society promotes distance, and we don't know each other — Jews, gentiles, Latinos, blacks. We're kind of in the wilderness here on this project, but we're going toward the Promised Land.”
Geller says she also wants to deconstruct the management-heavy, '60s model of activism and remake it into something more meaningful and effective for today.
“One of the criticisms of the civil rights model is that Jews were perceived as helping blacks,” she says. “If we start with personal issues that matter to everybody — things like drug addiction, aging parents, emergency health care — then we'll be on equal footing.”
One L.A. organizer, Daniel May, describes the dynamics of the Emanuel/Bryant project, and others like it around town, as “moving from strangers to neighbors. It's not about issues, but commonalities. And also differences.”
I keep that in mind as two musical traditions come together tentatively, somewhat clumsily, before my eyes. Besides the black choir, the service features Jewish singer/guitarist Rick Recht. I have no idea who Recht is, but his name, pronounced “Wrecked,” sounds appropriately rapper-esque.
He turns out to be the furthest thing from that — a smooth, charismatic performer and storyteller with impeccable pop sensibilities and an occasional edge — kind of a Jewish Jim Croce. But he hits a serious sour note when he decides to turn the venerable “Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing,” a poem-cum-song penned at the turn of the 20th century that evolved into the black national anthem, into a kind of summer camp sing-along, complete with call and response.
I get the good intention, but it's mildly horrifying nonetheless. The black people look a bit stunned, though tolerant.
Then, when the Bryant choir backs up another gospel number, Emanuel's sonorous and dignified cantor suddenly erupts with a funkified solo on “Let My People Go,” complete with hand gestures and foot shuffling that must be meant to echo James Brown.
My Jewish husband seated next to me, puts his head in his hands briefly.
“Look at what my people are doing,” he murmured. “It's embarrassing.”
Maybe. But I hardly expected Jews to have that kind of rhythm, or for anybody nonblack to resist the temptation to boogie when black people give them the chance. But music is not the main point: This evening is facilitating a larger and, I believe, enlightening purpose. For that possibility alone, I'll endure 1,000 more funk faux pas. And I trust the congregants will put up with mine as well.
Erin Aubry Kaplan is a regular Op-Ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
Wandering Jew – Music to My Ears
Campus Outreach Connects Orthodox
At the Enormous Activities Fair during UCLA’s Welcome Week last September, Sharona Kaplan stepped away from her own brochure-laden table to help out at the busier Hillel table.
A first-year student perusing Hillel’s sign-up sheet seemed stuck on one question.
“So what kind of services are you looking for? Liberal, Conservative, Orthodox?” Kaplan asked her.
“The least religious,” the girl said, and Kaplan helped her mark the box for “Reform.”
That doesn’t bother Kaplan at all — each student should find what’s appropriate for him or her, she believes.
But her particular mission is to serve Orthodox Jews and to encourage observant Judaism.
Sharona Kaplan and her husband, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, both 26, arrived in September 2004 through the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus(JLIC), a program sponsored by the Orthodox Union, Hillel and the Torah Mitzion organization to serve the needs of Orthodox students.
Since the program began five years ago, it has anchored couples on 12 U.S. campuses — three of them newly placed this past September — as well as at Oxford University in England. Each couple is a young rabbi and his wife, charged with teaching classes, running Shabbat programs, ensuring that religious services and kosher food are available and providing a frum-friendly atmosphere for students coming out of the Orthodox day school world.
Over the past year the Kaplans have instituted weekly Shabbat lunches and holiday meals at Hillel, and they invite students to their home for Shabbat meals when the university is closed.
They also strengthened the daily minyans, Sharona Kaplan says, noting that her husband “wakes the boys up and drives around picking them up” to make sure they get to shacharit services on time.
In many ways, the JLIC program is similar to campus programs run by the Chabad organization. The JLIC couples, however, are sent mainly to serve students who already are Orthodox, whereas Chabad couples actively reach out to the entire Jewish spectrum.
Though JLIC couples welcome every Jew to their programs — and would be happy to shepherd nonobservant young people down the frum path — that’s not their mandate.
“The primary purpose is to serve the needs of the Orthodox population,” says Rabbi Ilan Haber, the program’s national director, who works out of Hillel headquarters in Washington. “It’s not an outreach program, it’s an in-reach to Orthodox students.”
Haber says an important aspect of the program is sending a couple to each college: “We feel there’s a need for both male and female role models for the students.”
This point is driven home on a September afternoon at Brooklyn College in New York where Nalini Ibragimov is teaching Torah to nine young women. It’s the students’ two-hour free period, which the college gives twice a week to encourage clubs and sports.
Instead of eating a longer lunch or going swimming, these nine modestly dressed students are discussing with Ibragimov, their rebbetzin on campus, the finer points of the 39 malachot, or acts of labor forbidden on Shabbat.
Nalini Ibragimov, 28, and her husband, 30-year-old Rabbi Reuven Ibragimov, were sent to Brooklyn College three years ago.
Four of the nine women in Nalini Ibragimov’s class spent last year studying in Jerusalem at all-girls seminaries. All say they’re thrilled to have the Ibragimovs on campus.
Meira Sanders, 19, says she likes “just having a rabbi you can ask questions.”
Sarah Roller, 18, says, “It’s really important to have an Orthodox woman to look up to.”
Several of the young women say the JLIC presence eases their transition from high school, where at least half their classes were on religious subjects. One-third of Brooklyn College’s 10,000 students are Jewish, but this is a first experience in a primarily secular world for these nine students, and they’re anxious for regular doses of Yiddishkeit.
“If there weren’t religious studies here, I don’t think I would have come,” Roller says.
Haber, the national program director, says that as more and more Modern Orthodox began attending universities other than Yeshiva University and its affiliate for women, Stern College, the traditional choices for this community, Orthodox leaders and parents saw the need to provide ongoing religious counseling and services to them during their campus years.
Some Reform and Conservative students look at the JLIC program and wish their movements would fund professionals on campus, too. Both the Reform and Conservative movements depend on student volunteers to do campus outreach.
“Between JLIC, Chabad and JAM,” a Southern California-based Orthodox outreach program, “the Orthodox are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the Reform and Conservative are giving zero,” says Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, UCLA’s longtime Hillel director.
“If a kid wants to study Talmud,” he can benefit from the Orthodox rabbi, Seidler-Feller says. “But what if he wants to study Buber?”
The answer, for now, is that such students will have to rely on secular coursework.
Still, the goal of funding campus professionals is “important” to the Conservative leadership, says Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism. “We are trying to find the financial wherewithal to do it.”
A Reform movement leader considers such aspirations a “fantasy” for his movement, given that there are Reform students on several hundred campuses.
“I even question the efficacy of it,” says Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, adding that a Reform rabbinic presence on campus wouldn’t solve the challenge of keeping Reform students Jewishly involved through their college years.
“The involved students are wonderful, and they crave as much rabbinic input as we can give them, but they’re a tiny minority” of the overall student population, he says. “If we put a rabbi on every campus, would [involved students] increase from 5 percent to 10 percent or 20 percent? I doubt it.”
For more information on Camp Gan Israel Running Springs, call Chabad Youth Programs at (310) 208-7511, ext. 1270.
AF Academy’s New Religion Rules Hit
David Klinghoffer’s entreaty and Jack Abramoff’s wounded feelings ring hollow for the same reason: each expects that the fact that Abramoff used purloined funds to better the Jewish community should somehow mitigate the harm that Abramoff has caused (“Sympathy for the Devil?” Jan. 27).
Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. One cannot give tzedakah with stolen funds. The very word “tzedakah” has as it’s root the word “tzedek,” which, of course, means “justice.”
There is no justice in stealing from one to give to another, particularly where, as here, there were accolades showered upon Abramoff for his “gifts.” One of the senses of tzedakah is that of giving of yourself from your own resources; Abramoff did neither.
My greater compassion is reserved for Abramoff’s victims: the clients from whom he stole the money, his grieving father who has lost a son, his family who has lost a husband, father and putative provider. Abramoff will have room and board at the taxpayers’ expense; his family will, potentially, have nothing.
To Klinghoffer and Abramoff I would point out that nobody wants to cut off Abramoff’s head; he has already done that.
E. Hil Margolin
Jews are not attacking or abandoning Abramoff because he’s Jewish — they’re embarrassed and outraged that he’s trying to wrap himself in the glory and good name of Judaism. “God sent me 1,000 hints that He didn’t want me to keep doing what I was doing.” Jewish or not Jewish, you shouldn’t need God to send you “hints” when we have things called laws.
I have been meaning to write to you about your “Mensches” article (Jan. 6) since the week it appeared. I have saved that issue as it is so full of positive news about the happenings in L.A. with people and their behavior and actions.
I was hoping to suggest that since you obviously can’t put more than 10 people in at a time, wouldn’t it be fabulous to put this article and types like it in the paper quarterly? We always have a plethora of bad news, why not balance it out more with this type of journalism?
I think it’s so sad that the only feedback you received after this article was printed is how you might have conjugated the word mensches wrong. I want to thank you for doing this article and bringing these people to light. May it make us all think about what the rest of us can do to help and improve our lives and those around us.
The Journal’s coverage of the bonding of 1,100 Messianic Jews for Jesus and Christian Zionists at The Church on the Way should come as no surprise (“Messianics Gather for National Meeting,” Jan. 27). Jews for Judaism has warned Jewish leaders and Israeli officials that working with evangelicals is a double-edged sword and that The Church on the Way is a Trojan horse.
The Church on the Way has an ongoing messianic outreach and religious services designed to attract Jews. We know of dozens of Jewish families who were devastated after their children were converted to evangelical Christianity by representatives of this megachurch.
Christian support for Israel is a blessing. However, unfortunately, some members of our community deny or choose to ignore the threat that evangelicals pose to Jewish spiritual survival. The essence of the term evangelical is to proselytize.
Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz
Jews for Judaism
Although I am hardly in the habit of penning letters in support of Bibi Netanyahu, I feel compelled to respond to Harvard student Shira Kaplan’s heartfelt but misleading essay on Hamas and Israel (“Give Peace a Shot,” Feb. 3).
Assuming the role of a modern-day prophetess, Kaplan boldly predicts that if the right-wing Likud leader is returned to office, “like in Netanyahu’s previous term in office, buses will be blowing up in the center of Tel Aviv.”
I served as an American diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv in the mid-1990s, when buses were in fact blowing up in the city and would like to set the record straight for those like Kaplan who may have forgotten the recent chronology of terror in Israel.
According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, 141 Israelis were killed by terrorists from September 1993 (the Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn) to November 1995, when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.
During Netanyahu’s three years in power, a comparatively low number of 51 Israelis were killed by terrorists, who perpetrated two attacks, inter alia, in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market (16 and five victims, respectively). However, there were no bus bombings in Israel during Netanyahu’s rule.
I am neither Jewish nor Israeli and would never presume to tell Israelis for whom they should vote. However, I do hope that they go to the polls in March armed with both hope and information. Whatever other sins Netanyahu may have committed as prime minister, he cannot in fairness be charged with provoking terrorist bus bombings.
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When Rabbi Sharon Brous leads a worship service, Jews dance and sing and pray — and talk politics. Her Los Angeles-based Ikar is not a traditional congregation but rather, as she describes it, a “spiritual community” of “modern, progressive Jews” who “boldly reclaim the essence of our tradition” by engaging in soulful worship and social justice.
Brous, 32, is one of a growing number of young Jews across the country who are creating unconventional sacred communities, unbound by expectations of what a synagogue is supposed to be.
About a dozen of these innovative Jewish leaders gathered together for the first time in mid-January at a two-day conference at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley. The event was organized by Synagogue 3000, a nonprofit group aimed at revitalizing the Jewish house of worship.
To help guide these “emergent Jews,” as Synagogue 3000 calls them, the group invited another network of religious leaders who had embarked on a similar quest — only theirs was focused on transforming the Christian community.
Nearly 10 years ago, these young Christians were dissatisfied with the typical ways of “doing church.” They had grown disillusioned with what they saw as the commoditization of theology by the megachurches, with their sleek marketing campaigns and business-management styles. So they formed a network called Emergent, focused on developing communities of faith that are authentically Christian and engaged with American culture.
Hailing from a variety of backgrounds — mostly evangelical but also mainline Protestant and Catholic — these so-called “emergent Christians” refused to align themselves with any political party, calling themselves, instead, postmodern, post-liberal, post-conservative and post-evangelical.
“We’re fiercely independent,” said Tony Jones, Emergent’s national coordinator. “Our primarily affiliation is with God.”
Today, Christian emergent communities are drawing young people across the country. Services often feature live bands and take place in coffee houses or bars. Pastors preach hospitality, individual participation and the notion that all of life — not simply the church service — is spiritual.
Sharing Songs and Sacred Texts
On a bright Monday afternoon at Brandeis-Bardin, more than two-dozen emergent Jews and Christians sit in a circle. Jones, the Christian emergent leader, explains “how blown away we were by this invitation.” To break the ice, he said, he will quote Jesus.
“Well, he was Jewish,” some of the Jews respond with a laugh.
After Jones reads from Matthew’s gospel, Jeremy Morrison, a 34-year-old rabbi who runs Temple Israel of Boston’s Riverway Project for 20- and 30-somethings, said: “Tony spoke about Jesus, so I’ll talk about Torah.” He speaks of Genesis and says he hopes that today, too, will be a beginning. “I see our time together as an opportunity for us to become free,” he said.
To the strum of a guitar, the Jews and Christians join in song, repeating the refrain: “How good and pleasant it is for us to dwell together.”
Seeking a Shared Vision Despite Differences
There’s a sense in the Jewish community that traditional synagogue services are simply not moving people, particularly young people.
In response, Jews like Amichai Lau-Lavie, 36, have created new communities and styles of worship that seek to reinvigorate worshippers with a sense of awe and spirituality.
Eight years ago, Lau-Lavie, who calls himself an “emerJew,” created Storahtelling, a traveling theater company based in New York, which reenacts Torah portions, accompanied by live music. Recently, he started a “ritual lab,” a sort of laboratory for sacred experiences.
“It’s an event,” Lau-Lavie said, “not a service.” It can take place in a mall or dance club and include a DJ playing electronica music. The worship experience is nondenominational. “If anything, it’s flexidox,” he said, a mix of everything.
Dov Gartenberg, a rabbi in Seattle, recently left his perch at a conservative synagogue to start Panim Hadashot, New Faces of Judaism, an outreach organization that welcomes Jews of all denominations and stripes — single, married, intermarried — into the community. Worship revolves around what he calls “Shabbat feasts,” dinners around town and at his home. Sometimes, he sets up at a table at Whole Foods Market, where he tries to connect with Jews by giving away samples of traditional foods.
At the conference, designed to introduce these visionary Jewish leaders to their Christian counterparts, Jews and Christians broke off into groups. Lau-Lavie took a walk with a Christian emergent from Atlanta, during which they discussed their paths toward God.
Afterward, Lau-Lavie talked with excitement about how significant this was. “My grandfather, who was a rabbi, probably didn’t take a walk together with a fellow on a different path,” he said. But here he was, taking “a walk on the wild side.”
Shawn Landres, research director of Synagogue 3000, wandered from group to group. “I overheard somebody asking what it means to have a calling from God,” he said. “That’s new, I think, Jewishly, to encounter people who are not afraid to talk about that urgency, that sense of mission.”
“I think it’s helpful to think of Christianity and Judaism as sister religions,” Landres added. “Really, we are heirs to the religion that was practiced by ancient Jews in the Temple. When the Temple was destroyed, our solution as Jews was the Torah.” For Christians, it was Jesus.
The Jewish and Christian emergent leaders echoed this feeling of compatibility as they sat together, distilling their experiences in front of an audience of established, mainstream Jewish leaders, who had been invited to observe.
Both “emergent” Jews and Christians share a progressive outlook, a philosophy of welcoming and hospitality, a commitment to community and social justice. Both are using creativity to build engaging, spiritual communities.
Still, some of the Jewish leaders expressed unease about collaborating with a group that, ultimately, might believe that the second coming of Jesus depends on Jews’ converting to Christianity.
“They have a religious vision that deems my religious expression ultimately secondary,” said Morrison, who teaches young people Torah over beer and wine in Boston. “I need to know where they stand.”
Jones, the Emergent leader, tried to dismiss the concern. “The goal of a dialogue with peers of another faith is surely not to convert them,” he said.
At this point, anyway, the dialogue is just beginning. The first date is over, and now both groups must decide whether to lean in for the kiss, as Synagogue 3000 research director Landres put it. The Jewish leaders say they would like to meet again — but next time, just among themselves. They need to get to know one another before they can collaborate with emergent Christians, they say.
As for Emergent coordinator Jones, he said he would like a second date. “But,” he added, “I think it’s more up to [the Jewish emergents] than it’s up to us.”
Synagogue 3000 Shifts Focus to Leaders
Synagogue 3000 is a new group aimed at revitalizing American synagogues. The Los Angeles-based nonprofit has organized a leadership network of 18 visionary rabbis, cantors, musicians and artists. Their task: figure out what it takes to engage committed worshippers and attract the unaffiliated.
So far, the group is getting tips from unexpected places. Last June, the Jewish leaders met with Christian evangelical Rick Warren, founding pastor of the Saddleback megachurch in Lake Forest and author of the best-selling “Purpose-Driven Life.” In November, the network met in Houston with Ronald Heifetz, a leadership expert at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Synagogue 3000 also created a network of Jewish “emergent” leaders, who are starting nontraditional spiritual communities. Earlier this month, Synagogue 3000 brought this group together with their Christian counterparts and the Jewish leadership network at a two-day conference in Simi Valley. A fourth summit is scheduled for March in New York.
In addition to creating leadership networks, Synagogue 3000 established this month the first academic institute for synagogue studies. It aims to answer questions that have not been adequately addressed, such as why people go to synagogue, how to create spiritual experiences and what a synagogue space should look like.
Synagogue 3000 is the latest incarnation of Synagogue 2000, a group founded more than 10 years ago by Ron Wolfson, who teaches at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and Lawrence Hoffman, a rabbi and professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.
The two shared a vision of what synagogue life could be like in the 20th and 21st centuries. Jews affiliate with synagogues more than with any other institution in the Jewish community, they agreed. But synagogues have not achieved their goal of igniting a spiritual spark in many worshippers.
Too many Jews were joining synagogues only when their children needed a religious education or a bar mitzvah. For many Jews, synagogues seemed unwelcoming places, cold and cliquish.
Wolfson and Hoffman set out to transform congregations across the country, creating a group called Synagogue 2000. The group worked with nearly 100 congregations, guiding them through a four-year process of change. But change had a price: about $7 million in grants and donations.
In 2003, Synagogue 2000 took a year and half to evaluate what it had learned and to determine the best way to move forward. The group decided that guiding congregations through a lengthy change process was too expensive. They also realized that change only happened when the leadership wanted it; willing congregations were not enough. “The clergy could make it or kill it,” Wolfson said.
So, Synagogue 3000 was a born, an organization dedicated to revitalizing synagogue life by cultivating spiritual leadership. —SPB
Kosher Gospel — a Joyful Noise at Shul
I shared a ballroom last Saturday night with a group of people whose lives could easily inspire nothing more than pity. Like me, they were attending the annual gala of Etta Israel Center, a Los Angeles-based organization that provides outreach and services to developmentally disabled Jews and their families.
Etta Israel is one of those rare organizations that attracts support — and offers support — across denominational boundaries. So the lobby of the California Science Center, decked out for a private evening affair, was host to bearded, black-hatted rabbis and smooth-shaven, kippah-less types. There were women in cocktail dresses and women in fashionable shaidels. UCLA Hillel Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, whose politics veer left, ran into an old acquaintance, Rabbi Baruch Kupfer, executive director of Maimonides Academy of Los Angeles, and the two men joked about who was going to swing whom over to his side.
Also among these Jewish leaders and financial supporters of Etta Israel were dozens of the young adults and children whose named and unnamed challenges — cerebral palsy, autism, Down’s syndrome and others — are often used as reasons to exclude them from many things that society has to offer, like an education.
The Etta Israel Center runs programs to teach Judaism to developmentally challenged children and young adults, as well as group homes for adults (its third home will open in the Valley in June) and a popular summer day camp. It helps Jewish day schools meet the learning needs of all its students, and has trained thousands of teachers in how to help all children learn through its Schools Attuned programs.
One of the young women in its girls yeshiva program saw me taking notes and approached me.
“She wants to show you her writing,” said the educator I was speaking with. The young woman couldn’t form words, but offered me her notepad, on which she had written several rows of wavy lines. It was just lines — no words, no letters — but it was her writing. She beamed and blushed at once.
In another context, the moment could have inspired pity. But pity is cheap. Like guilt, it’s only useful as a tool to pick the locks on our hearts, to compel us to change, to act.
Surrounded by friends from her class, helped along by the educator and the people at Etta Israel — as well as by parents, like the dozens of committed ones in the room — the young woman struck me as confident and fortunate. She found herself embraced by people who wouldn’t settle for mere pity.
One of the evening’s honorees was Valerie Vanaman, an attorney whose relentless advocacy on behalf of special-needs education has improved the lives of thousands of children and their families.
“Every child is entitled to receive an appropriate educational program,” Vanaman said during her award acceptance speech. It is such a simple idea, but like most simple ideas, it takes people of great intellect to conceive it and men and women of iron will to implement it.
Conversely, the idea that people with mental, emotional or physical disabilities might be barred from partaking in a public or Jewish education is, no matter how cool and rational it may seem, the fruit of simple minds, and it takes no more ability than the slack acceptance of the status quo to realize it. Vanaman railed against challenges to opportunity and funding of special-needs students at the state level, and urged parents to contact their representatives and State Board of Education Superintendent Jack O’Connell to protest the decrease in services. “Lawyers can’t save the day,” she said. “Only parents can save the day.”
The other honoree was David Suissa, the founder of Suissa/Miller Advertising and publisher of Olam magazine. During his speech, Suissa recounted the story of Etta Israel, a teacher who, after retirement, took it upon herself to teach developmentally disabled children at Beth Jacob Congregation for 20 years. Her experiences led Dr. Michael Held to create a center in her name. Again, it was a simple idea: instead of offering pity, offer parity. Extend the beauty and benefits of Jewish learning to those most likely to be left behind. Focus teachers on the students’ abilities, working through — and around — their deficits.
The organization, which has largely focused on the Orthodox community, is looking to be of service to non-Orthodox day schools, as well. Held wants more schools to emulate the model of schools like the CSUN-affiliated CHIME Charter schools in Woodland Hills, where enrollment is 80 percent “typical” children and 20 percent special-needs children. Why can’t the Jewish community, he asked, support a Jewish high school following that model?
A simple, brilliant idea — waiting for people of iron will to make it a reality.
For more information, go to www.etta.org
Chabad Menorahs Gain Acceptance
Ten years ago, the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) sued the city of Beverly Hills to block the local Chabad house from erecting a 27-foot menorah in a public park near City Hall. Displaying the menorah — a Jewish religious symbol — on public property, the AJCongress argued, was unconstitutional.
The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the city, allowing Chabad to put up the large candelabra. A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals later reversed the decision.
When it comes to displaying menorahs in public places, what a difference a decade makes.
This Chanukah, Chabad-Lubavitch plans to light more than 11,000 large public menorahs, from Bangkok to Miami Beach. Those lighting the Chanukah candles won’t come strictly from the ranks of America’s Chabad Chasidim; leaders of Jewish organizations across the spectrum, eager to take part in the public celebration of the Festival of Lights, will also be lighting Chabad’s candles.
The growing acceptance of the Chabad menorahs is just one example of a broader trend: As Chabad spreads throughout the United States and the world, America’s mainstream Jewish community is increasingly willing to embrace the movement, whereas in the past many Jewish organizations preferred to keep it at arm’s length.
“I think there’s less fear and more openness on the parts of both Chabad and the broader community to support all who can reach and touch Jews,” said John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York.
Chabad, though, said the recent past offers some indication of how far things have come — and where they may be headed.
“Chabad has not changed that much in a generation,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Washington office of the American Friends of Lubavitch. “The organized Jewish community has gone from being indifferent or harsh to being much more welcoming.”
Chabad insiders and observers cite several developments that highlight the change:
• Jewish federations around the country are funding Chabad projects, inviting Chabad rabbis to sit on their boards and committees and including Chabad synagogues in their listings of local places to pray.
• With each passing year, more U.S. Chabad houses become dues-based congregations — like most mainstream Jewish congregations — running on membership payments rather than simply on donations.
• Most Jewish groups no longer sue to prevent Chabad from erecting public menorahs.
• Chabad continues to secure support from Jews outside the movement, even non-Orthodox Jews like Harvard law school professor Alan Dershowitz.
The movement says its annual budget comes in at more than $1 billion, much of it raised by emissaries in the field for their own programming.
Chabad has made extraordinary efforts to reach out to Jews of every stripe, some of whom have grown to embrace the movement.
“In the market of outreach, Chabad looms large,” said Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at Queens College.
Dancing rabbis on Chabad fundraising telethons have given the movement a public face, as have the movement’s mitzvah mobiles and the army of young Chabadniks who spend days out on city sidewalks asking passers-by if they’d like to put on tefillin or sit in a mobile sukkah and shake a lulav.
“I think that Chabad and much of Orthodoxy have come of age,” Heilman said. “Orthodoxy in general is much more a part of the discussion. Within that, there’s been a recognition that Orthodoxy is not just one thing.”
Part of the reason Jewish groups were wary of Chabad was the impression that the movement was not out simply to offer Jews positive Jewish experiences, but wanted to make unobservant Jews Chabad adherents. Chabad rejects this notion, although its officials do acknowledge that they wouldn’t mind if those who come in contact with them take on more Jewish rituals.
Jewish Jury Still Out on Christian ‘Narnia’
Jewish Interns Get Peers to ‘Come Out’
A group of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender UCLA students recently gave Queen Esther, Haman and Queen Vashti a radical makeover.
To jazz up the deliverance of the Jews from evil Haman, 10 LGBT undergrads staged “Purim for Divas.” A bisexual woman donning a black cape, Mardi Gras mask and triangular hat played the evil Haman. A drag queen resplendent in tight sparkly skirt and heels appeared as Queen Vashti; Queen Esther was a gay man in a dress — his long, brown hair flowing freely.
After the campy performance, the students drank and danced the night away. Women embraced women; men flirted with men. A good time was had by all.
The 100 or so revelers could thank the Los Angeles Hillel Council and a singular collection of “peer interns” for the memorable evening.
Nineteen students at UCLA, USC, Cal State Northridge and four other Los Angeles-area universities are part of the Jewish Peer Intern Program. They underwent training to learn how to generate excitement about Hillel and Judaism among Jewish students who are largely on the periphery of campus Jewish life.
The group’s outreach efforts appear to have paid off: Hillel said 500 Jewish students have developed a deeper connection to the community through their participation.
Around the Southland, only about one in four Jewish college students is affiliated. And these students, including LGBT, interfaith and Persian students, are frequently underserved as well as uninvolved. Instead of trying to bring them to Hillel, Hillel is bringing Judaism to them through dinners, parties and lectures tailored to their interests, said David Levy, executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council.
“We want to stimulate Jewish life, create Jewish energy, anything that will strengthen the Jewish community,” he said.
The program’s personalized approach has resonated with Jewish students and has created a pool of tomorrow’s Jewish communal leaders, said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
“If you don’t start now, there won’t be anybody sitting in the leadership chairs at Jewish organizations in the future,” Fishel said. The Federation contributed $100,000 last year to underwrite the program and plans to continue its support, he added.
Hillel recruited interns — who earned $2,000 apiece — by advertising in college papers, mass e-mailings and word-of-mouth. The strong response allowed the group to tap talented Jewish students with deep ties to various groups Hillel wanted to reach.
At UCLA, for instance, 25 students competed for three intern spots targeting the gay, lesbian, bisexual community; Jewish student leaders; and Jewish art students. Leah Weiner, a Jewish Campus Service Corps Fellow at UCLA Hillel, interviewed nine candidates in person before making her final selection, settling on the most personable, creative and connected, she said.
UCLA senior Ariana Mechik was chosen to reach out to unaffiliated Jews with an interest in politics. Mechik, a double major in political science and French, sponsored forums once every three weeks where students could listen to and ask questions of local Jewish political leaders about their careers and how Judaism had shaped them. Guest speakers included L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Progressive Jewish Alliance Executive Director Daniel Sokatch.
Several who attended the lecture series and other Hillel-sponsored events later sought leadership positions in Bruins for Israel, an advocacy group. Going forward, Mechik said, she wants more Jewish students to run for student body political office to blunt anti-Semitism on campus.
“In general, there are some antagonistic sentiments toward Jewish students [at UCLA] because there’s a lot of sympathy for the Palestinian cause,” she said. “Israel, I think, doesn’t have the best reputation at all times. But I think Jewish students — who are actively Jewish — becoming student leaders reflects well on Judaism as a whole here on campus.”
For UCLA arts and culture intern Hana Meckler, the program reinforced her love of Judaism and Jews. The UCLA freshman said she forged several close friendships through myriad events she organized, including a visit to the Getty Museum and to a taping of “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”
“When you have Jewish friends, it’s so much easier to be apart of the Jewish community,” Meckler said. “I feel that [this program] has done me a service as well as to the people I’ve reached out to.”
Intern Razi Zarchy, 21, said he also personally benefited from the experience because his “Jewish side” had become relatively inactive since his bar mitzvah. The senior linguistic anthropology major had the job of outreach to LGBT students, who, like him, feared ostracism by the Jewish community.
Hillel’s outreach into the gay and lesbian community helped UCLA students come out as Jews. It also made a difference for some closeted Jews, who publicly acknowledged their sexual orientation after seeing the strong response to “Purim for Divas,” LGBT movie night and the Shabbat dinners Zarchy organized.
“All of this has made people have a positive association with Judaism,” he said. “They now realize their religion isn’t going to reject them or kick them out for being different.”
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